RPG Combat (and Zero Breakers)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how RPGs handle combat. It’s one of those things that people are weird about. People who enjoy entertainment without fighting on a regular basis and whose RPG campaigns include all sorts of other things nonetheless often seem to have trouble understanding how an RPG without combat would even be possible.

The traditional approach essentially makes combat into a highly detailed mini-game, often the single most complex portion of the game’s rules. As usual I’ll say that the traditional approach isn’t bad, just something that we need to examine critically, as it’s one valid approach among many. There’s a lot of variations of this general theme, but broadly speaking the major drawbacks of the traditional approach are:

  • It leans towards fights to the death being the default. Killing or incapacitating foes is often the most efficient way to do things in RPG combat systems. Some go as far as to penalize attempts to deal with foes in combat without killing them, and a whole lot of games find ways to gloss over all that killing as well. Character tend to cut off more story possibilities than they create. I won’t advocate for every character to be an immortal (though I think that’s a valid approach for some games), but fights to the death shouldn’t be the default quite so often.
  • It tends to make fights highly time-consuming. Some games do better than others, but by and large RPGs make fights just take a lot of time at the table. More than once I’ve had to cut a game session short because although we had some more time to hang out, we didn’t have an hour and a half to play out a battle.
  • It can detract from other parts of the game. There are a lot of things I like about D&D4e, and a lot of things I think RPG designers in general could stand to learn from. But there’s still the fact that it made it really easy to get sucked into the combat mini-game and not really role-play unless you went way out of your way to put effort into it. 4e has one of the more sophisticated and fun combat mini-games in an RPG, but it’s nowhere near alone in the tendency to take away from other parts of the game.
  • Rules and character options tend to be excessively concentrated around it. These two things dovetail into one another, because if combat is the most involved thing in the game, it’s also the thing that game designers can hang the most character traits off of. Since combat is so often life-and-death for the PCs, players naturally tend to make it a high priority since they want their characters to not die.

All of these are tendencies rather than ironclad consequences of course, and things that RPGs can do better at even without taking a radically different approach. D&D4e for example made the simple change of letting you incapacitate an enemy simply by declaring that you’re doing so when landing a final blow on an enemy, which makes it vastly easier to, say, spare a foe’s life to interrogate them later. Strike! removes so much of the busywork from combat that it takes 4e-style tactical combat and cuts them down to 20 or 30 minutes.

I’ve been playing JRPGs pretty intently of late (notably Final Fantasy X and Tales of Hearts R). The combat systems in those kinds of games are descended from D&D (with games like Wizardry! and Dragon Quest as intermediary steps), where you’re mainly using your attacks to wear down the enemy’s HP before they can do the same to you. However, the way the games use battles as part of the overall story can vary enormously. Usually when you deplete a monster’s HP it’s implied that you kill it, but named characters are a very different matter. Unless you’re close to the end of the game, in a JRPG a battle against a named human character will typically result in them being too beat down to fight, but almost never means they’re dead.

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In general I find it interesting how JRPGs will establish a combat system and then use it in a variety of different ways to tell a story. Final Fantasy games and Tales games have some major differences in their styles of combat systems (Tales is real-time and makes considerable use of positioning), but they’re similar for how the game designers will determine the narrative purpose of a fight, using the design parameters of the enemy and the story elements before and after (and sometimes during) the battle to make it fit into the flow of the game’s story to a certain effect. They sometimes do this badly, slotting a contrived hoop to jump through where there at first seems to be a gameplay challenge. For the first few hours of Final Fantasy X there are almost no battles that work as normal battles for example; the game is constantly interrupting them to toss story stuff at you.

For a while I’ve been thinking about how to make an RPG in the style of JRPGs, and those games’ relationship with combat is one of the things that potentially makes it a tricky proposition. In the 90s there was a fan-made Final Fantasy RPG project that tried to duplicate the mechanics of the video games, and the result was something that I suspect only would’ve felt like a Final Fantasy game story-wise with a lot of extra work on the GM’s part. Tabletop RPGs don’t have or need “cutscenes,” and JRPG mechanics don’t have any way to address how to handle those kinds of events, because they come down to what the writers can write and the programmers can portray.

There have been some tabletop RPGs that take an unconventional approach to combat. Here are a few:

  • Combat in Apocalypse World has dramatically less of a distinction from other parts of gameplay. Certain aspects of the game are much more likely to come into play during a fight, but the game never stops being fundamentally about “the conversation.”
  • Taking it even further, games like Fiasco have very few rules at all, including where combat is concerned. Apart from the epilogue, the game doesn’t impose any consequences per se, and this can be very freeing. A player can have their own character die in the first scene, and then appear only in flashbacks for the rest of the game, something that would be next to impossible to arrange in a typical RPG.
  • Many games make no particular distinction between combat and other types of conflict. Polaris for example follows the same conflict resolution process regardless of the nature of the conflict. Dogs in the Vineyard has different levels of escalation that distinguish an argument from a gunfight, but the fundamental rules of conflicts stay the same.
  • In Golden Sky Stories, the subject matter and overall approach are non-violent. There might be an occasional scuffle (though I’ve never seen one when running the game), but GSS shows us that an RPG just plain doesn’t have to involve violence.
  • In Magical Fury, I cut combat down to a few quick die rolls and an evaluation that tells you what the consequences of the battle are. Although battles are a regular feature of gameplay, they take up very little time, and primarily serve as a means to determine what consequences arise from a fight.
  • World Wide Wrestling is based on professional wrestling, and that led it to a pretty unique take on how fights work out. The GM “books” each match, and decides on its outcome ahead of time. It’s possible for wrestlers to swerve a match to an unplanned outcome, but the real purpose of the matches is their place in the story and determining whether they make the crowd go wild or just fall flat.

Although I like all of these, I think for me the most interesting at the moment are the games that prioritize the consequences of a conflict. An awful lot of the various narrative forms of entertainment we experience deal with combat in those terms, I think because otherwise there’s usually not much point in including it. Even an impressively choreographed fight can be boring if it doesn’t lead much of anywhere, as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace demonstrated several times over, whereas a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road can get away with being one long, violent chase scene because the movie skillfully gives you reasons to care about how things turn out.

Anyway, all of this leads me to yet another RPG project. I started on a mini-RPG, called Zero Breakers: Battle School Chronicle. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make an RPG in the style of shounen fighting manga (stuff like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, etc.) for ages, and I was thinking about taking a stab at it as a Patreon mini-RPG. That in turn met with an idea for a game about students at a school for people with special powers, where school life is bent around epic battles that keep the students busy, inspired by Mikagura Gakuen Kumikyoku. Zero Breakers takes place at Narukami Gakuen, a school for Breakers. “Breakers” are people with a limited ability to bend reality around them, fueled by their passions and interests, and the school is one of several institutions that basically exist to keep them busy so they don’t destroy the world. Lots of fighting, in a setting where characters can have zany powers and fight with paintbrushes or staplers or whatever, and not the kind of thing where characters die. Even if you beat someone, chances are you’ll still see them in class the next day.

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Pictured: Superpowered, super-genki girl-crazy lesbian and long-suffering talking animal mascot critter

Although the outward trappings vary greatly, shounen fighting manga has a very distinct style, and one that I think runs against the grain of how tabletop RPGs typically work. My original “Zero Breakers” game (I decided to reuse the title) was going to be diceless, and battles would’ve essentially involved jockeying to bring your Power Level up higher than that of your opponent. It wound up being one of those drafts with some stuff that sounded neat on paper, but never gelled into a game. A friend of mine meanwhile literally went through about 40 different iterations of his own attempt at the genre without really getting anywhere. To me shounen manga battles have an air of inevitability about them. That was why I initially went for a diceless approach. A shounen RPG could have some kind of randomness, but I feel that the typical RPG approach with to-hit rolls is just flat-out wrong for the genre. There’s just no element of dumb luck in them, except maybe when “luck” is a very deliberate plot element.

But making a competitive, non-random combat system that’s still fun to engage and produces interesting stories may be a bit beyond me. Like a lot of the design problems I’ve run into, the solution seems to be to approach it from a totally different angle, creating rules that are situated orthogonally to the usual things RPG mechanics concern themselves with.

I’m still trying to work out how exactly I’m going to put Zero Breakers together, but my initial thinking is that it will be centered around playing cards to narrate stuff rather than playing with mechanics to see if you win. I’m debating taking an approach similar to World Wide Wrestling, where the default outcome is pre-determined, and you’re playing out the fight more to see its broader effects. (But I’m not sure how exactly that decision should be made if I do go that route.) In any case I’m thinking players will accumulate cards over the course of the setup by doing things that fit their character, and then do different things with the cards to trigger “moves” that let them narrate different kinds of things that show the overall thrust of the battle. Players on the sidelines have the option to do “side narration” (the Speedwagon role, to anyone who knows JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure), playing a card now and then to enhance one side’s plays while narrating details about the fight in-character.

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Anyway, that’s where I am with things right now. I’m a bit into the first draft of Zero Breakers, and generally liking how the whole thing is coming along.

Persona 3 & 4 (and Zero Hour)

A while back I took advantage of an Amazon Lightning Deal to get a PlayStation TV, which in case you don’t know is basically the guts of a Vita in a little box that plugs into your TV. The selection of games for it is relatively limited, but includes a fair amount of JRPGs, including Persona 3 Portable (by way of getting the PSP version through PSN) and Persona 4 Golden. They wound up being among the more compelling video game experiences I’ve had ever, and I can definitely see why a Persona-inspired tabletop RPG is kind of a holy grail for a lot of gamers.

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Continue reading Persona 3 & 4 (and Zero Hour)

Randomness in RPGs

I’ve been reading Steward Woods’ Eurogames, a book that aims to lay out an overview of the origins, design trends, and culture around German-style board games. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there, but one thing in particular that stands out is the discussion of how different types of games use randomness.

In board games in general, randomness is optional, but people view it as having a certain kind of value, in that it prevents pure skill from being too dominant (so a wider range of people can enjoy the game) and it can add replay value through random variety. There’s a spectrum of randomness, with games of pure skill like chess on one end, and games of pure chance like Chutes & Ladders on the other, and most games living somewhere in the middle. That alone is a stark contrast to RPGs, where with a few exceptions, people tend to regard randomness as simply non-optional.

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There are several different things that divide eurogames from tabletop games of other design traditions, but one of the big ones is not the presence of randomness, but rather the ways in which games use randomness. Wargames seek to simulate war, and war is unpredictable. Competent generals do what they can to improve their chances of success, to tilt the die roll in their favor, but the realities are such that it makes sense that there’s a random component to the success or failure of whatever you attempt to do. D&D took up this approach to randomness, where you choose a course of action and then see if it succeeds, presumably from its wargame antecedents, and (partly but not entirely due to D&D’s massive influence), it’s become deeply ingrained in hobby games in the English-speaking world in general, including RPGs, and that in turn has greatly influenced video games. In contrast, by and large eurogames use randomness to determine what options you have in front of you, but don’t leave you to roll the dice to determine if they succeed. In Catan (to pick a well-known example) you roll dice to see what materials the players accrue, but there’s no roll to see if you can successfully build a city. Once you meet the requirements, you can get a city, and that’s that.

Continue reading Randomness in RPGs

Ewen’s Tables

The other day I finished the 36th and (for the time being) final installment of Ewen’s Tables, my series of little PDFs of d66 tables. Some turned out better than others, but the best ones can produce things that are hilarious or fascinating. In some cases I adapted stuff from card games and such I’ve been working on, and I repurposed most of the 36 tables I’d written up to go in Most of My Friends Are Potential Supervillains (which will be the sequel to I Want to be an Awesome Robot), but most of the tables were original work. Or rather, they were things I newly created, though it’s in the nature of the endeavor that a certain amount of derivativeness is required. A lot of the tables were basically a matter of finding the right breaking points in names and phrases to make mixing and matching them a workable thing to do, not for the first time making Wikipedia an indispensable tool. The ones that required more original content took a lot more time and effort.

The topics of the PDFs were all over the place, ranging from fantasy stuff targeted at gamers to everyday things (“Places to Eat”) to stuff of interest to me personally (like a table for generating names of tea blends). It also wound up being a medium for humor, which is a lot of what the three “Odds and Ends” PDFs were about. It hasn’t sold gangbusters, but it has sold reasonably well. The ones that sell the most have tended to be the ones based around a particular genre, and to a lesser extent the obvious humor ones. The low price point also has people going in and buying like 4-6 of them at once.

I decided fairly early on to do 36 of them and then do a free PDF with a table to make a d66 roll to select an Ewen’s Tables PDF. I did that, and it was exhausting in various ways, but it happened.

11 Animals, 12 Anime Stuff, 13 Anime Stuff 2, 14 Book Titles, 15 Cute Names, 16 Cyberpunk Stuff, 21 Fantasy Characters, 22 Fantasy Creatures, 23 Fantasy Names, 24 Fantasy Names 2, 25 Fantasy Places, 26 Fantasy Religion, 31 Fantasy Silliness, 32 Fighting Stuff, 33 Game Stuff, 34 Horror Stuff, 35 Magic Stuff, 36 Modern Weirdness, 41 Music Stuff, 42 Odds and Ends, 43 Odds and Ends 2, 44 Odds and Ends 3: Odd Harder, 45 Oracles, 46 Pirate Names, 51 Places to Eat, 52 Post-Apocalyptic Stuff, 53 Pulp Stuff, 54 Sci-Fi Stuff, 55 Steampunk Stuff, 56 Super Names, 61 Technology Stuff, 62 Titles, 63 TV Stuff, 64 Vehicles, 65 War Stars, and 66 Wrestling Stuff

I also made a “d66 Deck” as sort of an accessory to the whole endeavor. It’s a deck of 72 cards that has the probability spread of 2d6 twice over, and lists the results of 2d6 and d66 rolls, as well as showing dice icons and an inspirational icon on each card. Among other things it’s pretty excellent for generating results from multi-column d66 tables.

To put a capstone on the whole endeavor, I compiled all 36 installments (plus some bonus stuff) into a print on demand book, the Ewen’s Tables Collection. It weighs in at 255 pages, 35,000 words, and 170 tables, and is available through both DriveThruRPG and Amazon. I’d had the idea to do a book of generator tables quite a while ago, and I’d been needling my friend Steven Savage, of Seventh Sanctum fame, to collaborate on such a project (which we may still do some day, though we’re both pretty busy these days), but this came together a bit more organically and with less planning. The selection of tables is a bit eccentric as a result, but when all is said and done I’m pretty proud of what I’ve accomplished, and I have a fairly hefty book to show for it. It’s kind of surreal to look at the finished product, a book about the same size as Maid RPG, and the result of six months of making these silly d66 tables.

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Anyway, the book is now available in print from Amazon and in print and PDF from DriveThruRPG. The printed book costs $20, and the PDF is a mere $12. (Whereas if you were to for some reason buy all 36 Ewen’s Tables PDFs separately it would cost $53.64.)

From here I’m thinking I’m going to give the Ewen’s Tables thing a bit of a break, and whenever I do some back to it I’ll open it up to submissions (since DTRPG’s automatic royalty sharing is actually pretty simple) and do some more myself, with the aim of eventually getting enough to do a second book. I already have way too many ideas for other tables to make.

Thoughts on Board Games

Today I bought a card game about farming beans. Specifically, Uwe Rosenberg’s Bohnanza. My interest in board games has increased quite a bit lately, and although I don’t have a lot of money to throw around, I’m nonetheless ending up buying things like the bean-farming card game.

I also got a copy of Sid Sackson’s book “A Gamut of Games,” a collection of 38 games, spanning board games, card games, and pencil-and-paper games, ranging from new works by himself and other designers to games found in publications from centuries ago. He was a prolific game designer, and from what I gather, he was an important figure in the development of board games. He pushed for more recognition for game inventors, and he was apparently part of the movement that led to eurogames. The games in A Gamut of Games mostly use traditional materials–a couple packs of cards, a checkers set, and a pencil and paper would be enough to play more of the games than not–but those games were by and large unconventional. Where I’ve found Hoyle books to get rather repetitive after the 20th trick-taking game (not that trick-taking games are bad, but there are enough that they blur together after a while), his book of card games (Card Games Around the World) has a baseball game played with cards.

Looking back, I think the major thing that’s changed for me is that I’ve just been exposed to board games that are variously more to my tastes or just plain better. With the exception of fond memories of playing Scrabble with my grandma, the board games I played when I was young just weren’t that fun for me. I don’t think I really have the right kind of mind for chess, and I found Monopoly just plain unfun and boring[1]. Although my enthusiasm for it has waned lately, Cards Against Humanity was the first card game that really and truly clicked for me, and it led me to other games like The Big IdeaDixit, Love Letter, and Dominion that I greatly enjoyed. There are still some games that do nothing for me (notably, games like Resistance or Avalon that are heavily based on bluffing), and although I seem to have a knack for picking up game rules quickly, I don’t have a lot of patience for complex games these days (though that’s definitely true of RPGs as well). I do kind of wish I had gotten into board games sooner, but on the other hand a lot of the games that really work for me are relatively recent. In essence the divide between the kinds of board games I played as a kid and disliked and the kinds I played as an adult and liked is the distance that designers like Sid Sackson advanced the medium.

Although I’m interested in board games for their own sake, I’m also doing all of this with an eye towards how it can apply to RPGs. RPGs have their own merits, but I think there are certain things that RPGs could stand to learn from them:

  • Compactness: Although there are a few board games that you can play as a massive campaign, for the most part they have evolved towards being more efficient and compact. Where a typical D&D session can be 4-6 hours, 2-3 hours is on the high end for the play time of board games. The pure role-playing has value and shouldn’t be eliminated or rushed, but the mechanical parts of RPGs include a lot of trends that make things less efficient, usually in the name of simulation or tradition, even if they don’t particularly add anything to the experience at the game table.
  • Teaching: There are exceptions (like pretty much every Fantasy Flight game I’ve tried so far), but by and large board games do a very good job of teaching people how to play. Some of that comes naturally from the rules being simpler, but RPG rulebooks often don’t seem to have a lot of thought put into the order in which you’d need to learn concepts. D&D (which I’m mentioning because it’s a well-known example, not because it’s exceptionally good or bad in this respect) has a lot of player options in the book well before the parts that would let you really understand the game well enough to make an informed decision about them. Mouse Guard is one of the few RPGs I know of where you can pretty much read the book front to back with no page-flipping and emerge with a decent understanding of the game. But even rarer is something like the rulebooks for Krosmaster Arena or Space Alert, which include simplified tutorial scenarios as well as the game rules.
  • Presentation: One of the major things that helps many board games achieve their efficiency is in how they efficiently provide information to players. I’ve written before about how D&D seems to have little to no thought given to how players are supposed to keep track of things at the game table, and I’ve certainly seen plenty of time wasted sifting through the PHB to figure out which thing from the character sheet to use. Apocalypse World‘s playbooks are one of the best solutions to this in RPGs so far, but that level of efficient reference seems to be pretty routine in board games.

One thing that’s emerging in my flailing attempts to begin designing card and board games is a series of games themed around cute witches going to witch school,[2] sort of like AEG’s many games set in the fictional nation of Tempest or Level 99 Games’ recurring World of Indines setting.

The first that I started on, but the one that’s proving the hardest to design is Magical Rail. I had the idea while visiting my sister in Washington D.C. She and her husband are huge into board games–my brother in law’s collection literally has over 700 different games–but since we got around D.C. on the train a lot it seemed like we had a lot of dead time, hence I had the idea of a game you could play on the train. The players would hold the (small number of) cards in their hands between them throughout the game, and gameplay involves a series of manipulations of those cards. It’s different enough from other card games (much less the relatively small subset of card games I’ve been exposed to) that it’s hard to figure out how exactly to proceed, but hitting on ideas like having players unable to rearrange the order of their cards (hence checking out Bohnanza for ideas) and 180-degree rotation of cards is slowly getting me to where I want to be.

The second is Magical Midterm, which started as an attempt at a light but still more strategic roll-and-move game, which I think grew out of playing Mario Party for the first time. In Magical Midterm instead of rolling dice you have a hand of movement cards, which include both basic movement and spells, which cost Mana Tokens. It’s still very early in development, and I’m planning to look deeper into race games in general for ideas, possibly going as far as to make it a game where each player has multiple pieces to move as in games like Pachisi.

Little Witches Duel is one I started on yesterday, and it’s basically a variant of the game Mate that appeared in A Gamut of Games, with a dedicated 20-card deck, a magical theme, and an attempt at adding in some Seiji Kanai style card effects. The result is (hopefully) a simple yet relatively deep 2-player card game.

Also on my list of possible games to do some day is a Slime Story deck-building game, though that would be quite a ways off.


[1]I’ve heard that Monopoly is a much better game if you include the auction rules, which seem to have largely been omitted from the oral tradition version of the game. My experiences with it were negative enough that I’m not really willing to go back and try again though.

[2]The idea popped into my head today to have reskinned versions aimed at boys with grimdark warlocks, but if I were to make something like that it would probably wind up being unspeakably sarcastic.

Updates on Assorted Projects

Fullmetal President
The game is coming along nicely. I did some important revisions based on the first playtest and some feedback, and I’m going to be doing some more playtesting soon. I also included a d66 table of offices in order of presidential succession, which got interesting because there are only about 18 positions in the real-life line of succession. Also we hit on the idea of presidential pets being a possible PC, hence for the upcoming playtest one of my friends sent me his writeup for the White House Dog as a Fullmetal President character:

Office: White House Dog
Name: Dogg McCool (named by the First Daughters)
Age: 5
Gender: Male
Race: Shih-Tzu/Greyhound mix
Home State: Oregon
Policies: Sniff as many butts and crotches as possible. Eat anything on the ground or floor. Catch a car. (Not a cat, he likes cats. A Car.)

Power Suit:
Name: AKC K9-99 Devourer
Main Weapon: CN-45 “SuperFang” Hydraulic Multi-shears
Mobility Pack: Google I-80N Automotive Follower Mode
Special Hardware: HH Amplified Ultrasonic Scanner

Raspberry Heaven
The new Restless-inspired card-based version of Raspberry Heaven worked really well in the first playtest, but it definitely needs some more playtesting, plus I’m waiting on artwork of the characters. It’s kind of a quirky, artsy game, so it’s going to mainly be a Patreon and POD release (since it was made for the oddball 6″x6″ format that DriveThru offers), though I already have some notes for a “Holiday Special” expansion, and an idea for a “Teacher’s Side” version inspired by the (obscure but kind awesome) manga S.S. Astro.

Mascot-tan
A while ago I started on a new version of Mascot-tan that ran on the rules of Maid RPG. The major issue I found is that random chargen doesn’t work well with gijinka characters, so I went back and reworked the character creation rules to be non-random, which makes them a bit more like the old version of Mascot-tan. The text is just about done, so the game will probably be going out once the colored versions of the artwork are ready.

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Fighting Fighters Coliseum
This is an idea I had a while ago, which I got inspired to work on again due to getting a copy of 7-Card Slugfest. FFC is a descendant of Channel A, where you use words on card to put together names of finishing moves. The game also has a set of 30 (so far) character cards. Each player has one, in which case it provides them with a small special ability, and they double as boss characters, in which case they have something that triggers when the group is fighting them. There’s also “Priority Tokens,” which you can grab once your move is put together to get a bonus for finishing quickly. Votes come in the form of “Hits,” and special abilities and Priority Tokens modify the number of Hits you get, giving the game a bit more of a mechanical side. I have the first prototype made, so we’ll see how (if) these things actually work in playtesting.

Magical Fury
The major new development with Magical Fury is that I finished and released the Magical Fury Companion, a 15-page PDF of new game material, including new moves, character options, and foes. It includes some of the stuff I’ve been developing for Magical Burst, reimagined for Magical Fury’s alternate take on things.

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Ewen’s Tables
The fairly ridiculous Ewen’s Tables project is nearing the end of its first chapter. The plan is to put together a total of 36 PDFs of d66 tables, and then make a compilation book available in POD and PDF (probably a bit over 200 pages), with some bonus tables and such thrown in for the heck of it.

To go with it I made the “d66 Deck,” a 72-card deck that gives the probability spread of 2d6 twice over, with 2d6 and d66 results, plus dice icons and “glyphs” to provide inspiration. They’re really nice for generating results from d66 tables, and I’m hoping to design some card games to play with them as well.

Magical Burst
I’ve been busy with other stuff, so not a lot has changed since I last posted about Magical Burst. I’m liking how it’s coming along in any case, and the core rules are coming together nicely, at least on paper.

I’ve been playing Persona 3 quite a bit lately, and I’m thinking that the rules of Magical Burst would be a great starting point for building a serial numbers filed off Persona RPG, though I need to finish MB and Persona 4 before I seriously think about that.

Magical Burst 5 Update

Over the past couple weeks I got inspired to start working on the next revision of Magical Burst, and I’m really liking how it’s coming along so far. It seems somehow appropriate that the 5th iteration could be the one that actually works how I want it to. I think working on smaller games has been doing me a huge amount of good as a game designer, forcing me to finish and polish things, and maybe giving me a better eye for what does and doesn’t work. My designs in general have been leaning kind of heavily on Apocalypse World for inspiration, but that’s a pretty sound foundation at least, especially since I seem to be getting a bit less clumsy about using that framework. I also made a point to start a new document from scratch rather than revising from the 4th draft, particularly since my RPG prose has gotten leaner of late.

A lot of the changes I’ve been making have been in the way of simplifying things. That’s partly due to the influence of Jim McGarva’s Strike!, a game that started as a hack of D&D4e, but has since transformed into its own thing, with downright radical levels of simplicity that expose how much of the math in other RPGs is potentially just busywork. Having more detailed rules isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but given that you can role-play with no formal rules at all, it’s worthwhile and even necessary to take a hard look at what effect each rule actually has.

Although I find the idea of relationship rules appealing, they seem to be hard to make flow well in play. The system I came up with for Magical Burst in previous versions was cumbersome, especially during character creation. In the new version I replaced all of the relationship rules with the question, “What two things connect you to the world?” I realized that what I really wanted was for players to decide on how their characters fit into the world and what things in the world they care about. Madoka cares about her family and friends, Sayaka has her crush that defines her, Homura is obsessed with Madoka, and so on. It’s more open-ended (you could answer “My best friend,” or you could say something like “My music”), it serves the purpose of developing the character’s connections to the world around them, and it does so with a minimum of rules.

Overcharge, attributes, and the action resolution rules are simpler too. I pared the list of stats down to four (Heart, Fury, Magic, and Real), with ratings from 1 to 4, and made it so there’s only one kind of Overcharge, which works more like the Magic points in Magical Fury. The “Real” stat is a character’s ability to handle herself in the real world, and for example it’s what you’d roll with if you want to convince your mom that nothing weird is going on and you’re just going out at night to study. The other three stats become a bit more for what they sound like they’re for instead of being flavor text for Fallout. I’m also sticking a bit closer to the AW paradigm of having fixed target numbers and no opposed rolls (7 or less is a miss, 8-10 is a weak hit, and 11+ is a strong hit), the idea being that it should speed up every roll. Although magical actions still have the exploding dice, they only generate a point of Fallout if you roll a 15+ (a “critical hit,” which can also have additional effects for specific moves), which significantly cuts down the amount of bookkeeping you do when you roll dice.

A common theme in this is that I had a lot of game procedures that were more complicated than they needed to be, which would variously get in the way of pursuing story stuff or (as in the case of Fallout) jam the game with too much story stuff.

Combat
The combat rules are getting a pretty substantial overhaul, and I’m really happy with where they’re going so far. (It’s also where the game most emphatically parts ways with Apocalypse World.) The big thing is a split between “skirmishes” and “full battles.” Skirmishes work basically like in Magical Fury, and come down to more or less one die roll per PC and an evaluation of the overall outcome, so that you can resolve one in a matter of minutes. (And you could run a whole campaign using nothing but skirmishes if you wanted.) Full battles are going to use a simpler version of the tactical combat from 4th Draft. I’m drawing on Strike! in that it uses small numbers of non-random damage points, and dispenses with defense rolls per se. Characters will still potentially be able to make themselves harder to hit and/or reduce damage, but without the time involved in defense rolls. (Which is practical to do with the change to how Overcharge works.) Removing two steps from every single attack should definitely make tactical combat go considerably faster.

This also led to a significant change to how I write up Talents, since they need to be functional enough to be worthwhile even if the GM decides to only use one type of combat. Where 4th Draft had a lot of Talents that were only useful in combat, in the new version most Talents have at least some use outside of combat. I’m also cutting down on the sheer number of talents, which should make them easier to manage all around. (Likewise, not having 3 flavors of Fallout effects makes it easier to fill out a d66 table without stretching myself too far and running out of good ideas.)

I’ve been playing Persona 3 lately, and the distinctions between the two types of battles parallels (but doesn’t exactly match) the distinction between random encounters and boss battles in a JRPG video game. Although both types of battles use the same systems, a minor dungeon encounter has a substantially different place in overall gameplay, to the point where it largely becomes a matter of tapping the X button and watching your overall resources instead of a careful all-out battle. For Magical Burst there is also a distinction in simple speed, but I think this kind of division and prioritization of different types of battles is one of the more fascinating things I’m playing with in RPGs.

Starting and Advancement
Another change I’ve mentioned before is explicitly setting the game up to start out with the PCs as normal girls who become magical girls during the early stages of the game. Not every magical girl anime works that way, but the vast majority do. Even when they do become magical girls, they’re defined a bit more simply now, and gain their optimum abilities over time. In particular, they start with only one Talent, and can obtain a Specialization and other abilities over time. (Though a GM who’s so inclined could easily give PCs one or two Advances over the course of the first session to introduce those elements faster.)

Setting and Themes
I also made some tweaks to the game’s (loose) setting. Although previous versions allowed youma to have minions, this version names them “imps” and makes them an explicit part of the setting, as they are proto-youma that can eventually grow into full youma. Dark magical girls (which I’m calling “witches,” sidestepping the kind of icky “dark = evil” thing) are also a more explicit setting element, taking inspiration from how they’re presented in various magical girl anime.

One thing that I’ve been trying to do more is to explore themes of femininity in the game. It’s an important part of the genre (if perhaps a bit less so in Madoka Magica than in other series), and something that I’ve struggled with a bit for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here. One kind of ham-fisted but seemingly effecting thing is to add the “What does being a girl mean to you?” question from Magical Fury. The answers that playtesters (men and women alike) gave to that question have been really fascinating, ranging from statements of feminine power to lamenting the expectations society forces on women. I also made the small but important distinction that magical girls’ powers are not inherently flawed, but rather it’s the nature of the world around them that twists their magic in the unfortunate ways that are so central to the game.

I’m also trying to address transgender and non-binary characters in the game, with some help from some trans women who were very patient and supportive with my questions. Writing about transgender issues in an RPG in a non-terrible way is not easy, partly because the language itself works against you, but hopefully I’ve arrived at something that will work, by leaving the question open-ended while suggesting some possibilities. Magical Burst is about magical girls–issues of femininity do in fact play a role–but in real life there are lots of kinds of girls. On a practical level, since the tsukaima who recruit magical girls are alien beings, they generally don’t fully understand human notions of gender anyway.

Anyway, that’s where I am right now. There’s still quite a bit of work to do–and a ton of other projects I’m working on–but I’m pretty happy with the foundation I’m laying down here.